The American Jesuits from Polotsk

Tadeusz Brzozowski
Francis Dzierozynski

  • John Anthony Grassi

Georgetown University (formerly Georgetown College) is the oldest Roman Catholic institution of higher education in the United States. The Society of Jesus or ‘Jesuits’ have run the university as both scholars and administrators since 1805. Jesuits from the Eastern lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth played a key role in the development of the university. Between 1806 and 1810 Tadeusz Brzozowski, S.J. (1749–1820), a Polish Jesuit priest, scholar, teacher, and administrator, dispatched eight Jesuits from Polotsk (Belarus) to the US in order to help foster the group’s revival in the country. Brzozowski was the twentieth ‘superior general’ of the Society of Jesus and its first leader to enjoy worldwide fame. He studied in Vilnius (Lithuania). He then moved to the town of Polotsk, which Russia had annexed from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania following the first partition of the Commonwealth in 1772. Brzozowski started to teach at the settlement’s renowned Jesuit College. The college continued to function during the Vatican’s official suppression of the order in the late 18th century, as it did not apply in the Russian Empire. In effect, Polotsk became the most important Jesuit center in the world for several decades.

Among the Jesuits that Brzozowski sent to the US was Giovanni Antonio Grassi or John Anthony Grassi (1775-1849), an Italian priest who studied at the Jesuit College in Polotsk. In America Grassi was appointed ‘superior’ of the Jesuits’ mission in Maryland, which held jurisdiction over all the Jesuits in the country. He was also nominated president of the fledgling Georgetown College. He dramatically improved its curriculum, enrollment, and public reputation. Grassi also obtained a congressional charter, which officially recognized the institution as a university. Consequently, Grassi became known as Georgetown’s “second founder”. Another famous Jesuit from the college in Polotsk was Francis Dzierozynski (1779 –1850), who also became a prominent missionary in the United States. He was born in the town of Orsha (modern-day eastern Belarus) into a Belarusian-Polish family. Dierozynski studied and taught at the college, as well as in the town of Mogilev. He was sent to the United States as a missionary in 1821. He started to teach at Georgetown College while simultaneously learning English. In 1823, he was appointed superior of the Maryland mission. Dzierozynski remained a professor at Georgetown, where he became vice president and treasurer and contributed greatly to the development of the university.